Unique Park in the Congo Now Four Times Larger

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, December 14, 2000 - Odzala National Park, a unique refuge for the world's largest concentration of lowland gorillas in the Republic of Congo, has been quadrupled in size. The expansion, announced today, secures habitat for the gorillas and a host of other rare and threatened species.

The Republic of Congo's Forestry Ministry enlarged the park to cover 3.2 million acres, about half the size of the state of Vermont. Located in the Congo Basin, the second largest tropical forest after Amazonia, Odzala claims exceptionally high levels of species diversity, with 444 of the Congo's 626 identified bird species, one of the largest populations of forest elephants and forest buffalo, and the only lions surviving in Central Africa.


A western lowland gorilla crosses a bai, or forest clearing, in Odzala National Park in the Republic of Congo (Photo © Russell Mittermeier / Conservation International)
"The expansion of Odzala means that a large area of productive forest previously set aside for timber exploitation is now protected. The park will be a pioneer for conservation in Central Africa and one of the main tourism resources in our country," said Republic of Congo Minister of Forestry Henri Djombo.

The park encompasses savannas, marshes, forests and several hundred clearings known as bais. Ranging in size from less than an acre to 30 acres, bais contain rich mineral deposits that attract many species, particularly large mammals such as elephants, water buffalo and gorillas.

"I have been studying primates for more than 30 years, and Odzala is the only place I know of where you can watch gorillas from as close as 50 feet, feeding on grasses in the open pasture," said Russell Mittermeier, primatologist and president of Conservation International, after a recent visit to the park.

"Considering the challenges in this region, expanding this park was a courageous and visionary move on the part of the Congolese government," Mittermeier said.


A forest elephant crosses a stream in a bai in Odzala National Park (Photo © P. Dejace)
The park was initially created in 1935 and declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1977. But regional conflicts and poverty left the park insufficiently funded and largely unprotected.

Although the park is isolated and remote from human settlements, commercial logging in the region introduced roads that provided access to the deep forest. As a result, bushmeat hunting and illegal poaching for the ivory trade have become a grave threat to the survival of the park's wildlife.

In addition, many key habitats with high wildlife concentrations were located outside the former park boundaries.

To address these threats, the Congolese Government is working with a European Commission funded program called Conservation and Rational Use of Forestry Ecosystems in Central Africa (ECOFAC). Managed by the European consulting firm, Agreco, ECOFAC has been working in the park since 1992 and will continue to manage the park through an agreement with the Congolese government.

"Since the beginning of the project, we have been able to manage poaching over an area of 1.4 million acres and we are seeing a great change in the behavior of the animals, particularly the elephants," said Jean Marc Froment, chief of ECOFAC's Congo Program.


One of the many rivers that crisscross Odzala National Park (Photo © Haroldo Castro / Conservation International)
Human population in the region is low, with fewer than 5,000 people living around the park. Slash and burn subsistence agriculture and hunting are common practices among this local population.

"For the first time in the history of Odzala, local populations are discovering the value of the National Park and its ecotourism potential as an alternative for their economic development. With their participation and involvement, the existing wildlife can be better protected, ensuring new economic benefits that will make Odzala a real social achievement," said Olivier Langrand, Conservation International's vice president for Africa.

Conservation International works in 32 countries on four continents, drawing upon an array of scientific, economic, awareness building and policy tools to help people find economic alternatives to harming their natural environments. ECOFAC works in six countries in the region: Cameroon, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Republic of Congo and São Tomé e Príncipe.


A forest buffalo feeds on the vegetation in a bai in Odzala National Park (Photo © Haroldo Castro / Conservation International)
The main objectives of ECOFAC's involvement in Odzala National Park are to conserve its unique biological and aesthetic values, to develop economic opportunities for local populations and to secure the financial sustainability of the park.

To that end, Agreco and Conservation International are providing technical support for creation of a trust fund for the park, to finance park management and foster public awareness. Conservation International will also help with strategic planning for the park.

The trust fund will support innovative research projects in the park, such as patrol based monitoring. Technological innovations, such as the use of the CyberTracker spatial data logger, which combines a GPS (Global Positioning System) with a simple handheld computer, have enabled park guards to actively participate in data collection and analysis.

The use of this new tool has resulted in an unprecedented level of timely and pertinent data, which can now be rapidly analyzed on a daily basis.

The expanded park is likely to be a major draw for researchers - and tourists.


Aerial view of a bai, a forest clearing, in Odzala National Park, Republic of Congo (Photo © Haroldo Castro / Conservation International)
What makes Odzala so unique are its natural forest clearings. Some of these clearings, known as salines, contain rich mineral deposits of calcium and sodium, which attract elephants and other big mammals. Both salines and bais, another type of clearing, contain lush, marshy vegetation dominated by sedges, which draw many animal species, such as lowland gorillas.

The ease with which animals like forest elephants and gorillas can be observed at the clearings makes Odzala exceptionally attractive for tourism and research. map

(Map courtesy Conservation International)